Crisis at the heart of China’s legitimacy
Bo Xilai, speaking in Chongqing before his house detention. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters
The house detention of top communist official Bo Xilai, until recently China’s most popular politician, now stripped of his titles, while his ambitious lawyer wife, Gu Kailai, is charged with involvement in the alleged murder of ex-Harrovian British businessmen Neil Heywood, is a story with everything. The British class system meets the dark, internal labyrinths of the Chinese communist party to create China’s biggest political scandal for decades. The Chinese state media are now in overdrive to portray Bo and Gu as an out-of-control, power-mad couple brought back within the rule of law by the wise, all-seeing party.
The rest of the world seems ready to play along. Bo was a dangerous populist politician, a throwback to the darker, more turbulent periods in China’s recent history. The whole process by which he has been brought low may have echoes of the court politics of the old Chinese imperial system, but it is effective. The deed has been done and the reformers remain in control, with David Cameron welcoming the investigation into Neil Heywood’s death and the resulting arrests.
But this episode is much more important than an over-mighty politician being squashed by the communist machine. What too few people recognise is the Communist party’s colossal legitimacy crisis. The battle between Bo and the leadership is about much more than the way he acquired the personal fortune that allowed him to educate his children at top British public schools. It is about finding an answer to the legitimacy question. Unless a convincing strategy can soon be developed, a Chinese spring sometime in the next decade seems nearly certain.
The party’s right to govern is that it led the communist revolution, the dawn of an egalitarian paradise in which the party as champion of the proletariat was to govern the economy and society harmoniously in the name of all. But while China’s growth has been remarkable and 400 million have been lifted out of poverty, it has plainly very little to do with socialism or an egalitarian paradise. The revolution’s leaders are long dead and they have been replaced by a competent if rotten administrative elite that looks more and more like the Confucian mandarinate the revolution overthrew.
A murky corporatist economic model has been created in which insiders, especially so-called princelings - sons and daughters of former revolutionary leaders such as Bo Xilai and his wife (both are children of revolutionary generals) - feather their nests with impunity. There is no impartial law; no checks and balances; nothing can be trusted. Party officials can make no claim to being revolutionary heroes as a reason for holding office; they are corrupt administrators just about delivering the quid pro quo of rising living standards. But if they fail, it is clear the whole edifice will implode.